Happy Birthday Lucan!

It was the 1975th anniversary of the Neronian poet Lucan’s birth on Monday (the 3rd November). For those of you not in the know, Lucan wrote an epic poem on the theme of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey (mid 1st Century BC). Lucan’s birthday was generally unremarked upon by most, but is actually relevant to my own research. Here’s why.

You see, in book 7 of the Epigrams Martial includes three poems on the theme of Lucan’s birthday, but he doesn’t specify the date (he only says haec est illa dies – this is that day… Informative). Now, to be fair on Martial, this is not the most important thing to include in the poem. The poet Statius (whom I mentioned in my introductory post) notes in the preface of his second book of Silvae that his own poem on the subject of Lucan’s birthday was written by commission (requested by Polla, Lucan’s widow), which suggests that this date was an important one for the literary world of Rome at the time. To Martial and Statius’ audience, then, the date of Lucan’s birthday was a known one – to put that exact information into their poems would be pointless and a waste of time.

But to me the date is important. When time is explicitly mentioned in book 7 it is always within the context of winter and December. Martial notably does not mention other times (except to state that they are in the future). So I looked up Lucan’s birthday in all the usual spots (wikipedia, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, and Brill’s New Pauly), trying to find the source that tells us that Lucan was born on the 3rd November 39 AD (which all three of my sources claimed as solid evidence). But nothng cited a source to tell us why. Luckily one of my supervisors pointed me in the direction of a 4th Century AD biography of Lucan that was written by a man called Vacca. Here’s what he said:

natus est III Nonas Novembris C. Caesare Augusto Germanico II, Apronio Caesiano consulibus.

He [Lucan] was born on the 3rd day before the Nones of November [i.e. the 3rd] when Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus [i.e. Caligula] and Apronius Caesianus were consuls (Gaius for the 2nd time).

So there we go! I have a source to link the birthday of Lucan to the 3rd November 39 AD (and one that I can cite for other people who might want the information). Fantastic! But this doesn’t add up with December, does it? Only winter. I could point out that Martial’s book was composed in December and that his poem on Lucan is meant to be set in the past, but remember that the first Lucan poet states that “this is that day.” Not was. Is.

The only saving grace for my otherwise perfectly unchallenged December-as-a-temporal-setting theory is that Martial doesn’t explicitly name the date. But as I said above, if this was a notable event in the Flavian literary calendar then his audience would be expected to know the day.

Ultimately the problem I think I am having to deal here is with how Martial composed his books and poetry. Martial has frequently been referred to as an occasional poet (one who writes for specific events or occasions), and nowhere is this more explicit in book 7 than here. Fine, but my thesis is that Martial composed his poems with the book in mind. There are too many self-referential poems about how he writes his books and subtle repetitions of themes and words to link otherwise unlinkable poems together to argue otherwise. But not every poem was composed just for the book – they must have had other contexts. Remember Statius? He openly says that his poem on Lucan was requested by Polla. What that means is unclear – did she pay Statius for the poem? Was there just a request for the poets of the day to write something appropriate? How much input did Polla have? Could she have influenced his poetry?

By this stage it’s more or less conjecture, but it does seem likely that Polla asked Lucan to make his own poem and he took his hints from what would have been expected for a writer in that situation. Martial would have done something similar. Payment is unmentioned, but in the world of Roman clientela (a patron & client relationship) Polla would have seen such a composition as a favour for her to return in some way in some gift or service.

So what do these three poems do to my concept of the book as a carefully sculpted work? I don’t think they have too much of an impact on the overall December theme – rather they tie more into the themes of great contemporary literary writers (Silius Italicus, Martial, Juvenal), Nero as a contrast to Domitian (the line “what worse than Nero? What better than his baths!” comes from book 7) and composition in general. These poems, possibly reworked for publication within the book, are useful in that they remind us, the modern reader, of the multiple points of reception that Martial’s poetry could have. While Martial’s books are worked together to have some form of unity it is a messy unity because of the various people he had to please in his writing. Epigrams 7.21-23 thus serve as a taste of Martial’s contemporary world, and also show how one writer could acknowledge another in the late 1st Century AD.

If you’re interested in these poems I include my own translation below:

This is that day, which conscious of great birth,
Gave Lucan to the populace and, Polla, to you.
Alas! Nero cruel and more hated than no shade
This, at least, ought not have been allowed to you. (7.21)

Memorable from the great birth of the Apollonean bard,
Dawn returns: crowd of Aonians, observe the rites!
When this day gave you, Lucan, to the earth, it deserved
To have the Baetis mixed with Castalia’s water. (7.22)

Come, Phoebus, but as great you were, when to he thundering wars
You yourself gave the second plectrum of the Latian lyre.
Why should I pray for such a dawn? May you, Polla, often
Worship your husband and may he know he is worshipped. (7.23)

[N.B. The first prize for Latin epic would have been Vergil for the Aeneid]

Further Reading

If you’re interested in the topic of Martial’s interactions with his patrons the work of Ruurd Nauta is especially important. I can wholeheartedly recommend his Poetry for Patrons (though being a book by Brill it is rather expensive to buy). Otherwise, most modern introductions to Martial deal in some way with the patron/client relationship.

Craig Williams recently wrote a very good book called Reading Roman Friendship and deals with how Romans wrote about clientela as amicitia (friendship) amongst other things.